From South Colony Lakes, traverse from Needle to Peak
Our afternoon hike of Humboldt the afternoon before gave us the extra benefit of sleeping solidly. Even though we were car-camping in a popular spot like South Colony Lakes, we heard no disturbances during the night, no one showing up at 2 in the morning and waking everyone else up. We awoke around 5:30 and were on our way about a quarter after six. Being the middle of September, it was still a bit dark hiking through the woods. We had our headlamps on until we broke out of the trees with great views of Crestone Needle and the setting moon.
The day had a bit of chill in it as fall was almost here. However, September is probably the best all-around month for hiking in the Rockies. Although the days are a bit shorter, the weather is usually more calm. The sun isn’t quite as intense as July and August hiking. September probably offers the best chances for summiting peaks in Colorado
We crossed Lower South Lake in a spot that had dried up and eventually found the climbers trail leading up to Broken Hand Pass. The trail to Broken Hand Pass is at first easy, then crosses a large talus field, then gets considerable steeper. There’s a good bit of scrambling to get through one narrow section. After that, it’s steep grass and dirt slopes and suddenly you’re at the top of the pass which has great views down into Cottonwood Lake basin. From the pass, Crestone Needle looks like a massive leaning rock tower. The hike over to the Needle is along a well-established and very pleasant trail. The terrain is really neat here: lots of grass and giant rocky ridges.
The standard route from this side on the Needle is the South Couloir. The guidebooks talk about two couloirs and switching between the two but we saw no reason at all to change couloirs. The main South Couloir will take you to within 20 feet of the summit and isn’t a scary climb at all. Although the trail leads you around corners and continues on a bit past the couloir, it’s so prominent that it’s almost impossible to miss. We started up the couloir and stayed in it the entire way. The difficulty never exceeds 3rd class and the scrambling is very solid. I don’t recall any serious exposure really (not like we’d been dealing with!). Strangely enough, however, some of the lethargy was leftover from the hike from yesterday and I found myself struggling near the top. As we neared the top, the weather seemed to get worse. It was pretty cloudy and wet feeling though no rain had fallen yet. Rain did appear to be falling over the southern Sangre de Cristo range. Directly to the west though, the weather appeared fine.
Finally, on top , we took in the astounding views all around us. Arriving at the summit and eyeing the traverse suddenly gave me renewed energy and enthusiasm (I’d need it). We stood on top for a few minutes eating when another pair of climbers arrived as well. After talking with them for a while and scouting out our route, we headed down. The climb down to the rappel point is obvious…and one of the scarier sections of the climb. A thin ridge snakes it’s way north, then east and descends about 50-75 feet to the top of a small gully on the massive north face of the Needle. Here, we found several slings around a large, solid spur. As Ken set up the rappel, I spied our route and picked out several prominent rock outcroppings to help guide us as we got down into the maze of steep and rocky couloirs.
The rappel was very long (about 100) feet and went straight off the main ridge. As you rappel, you can look straight down a couple thousand feet to Upper South Colony Lake. The rappel is surprisingly very easy. Although it is steep, there are no vertical or overhanging points. However, I would never downclimb this part without a rope. It’s very steep, long, and exposed. If faced with a downclimb, the safest way would probably be the gully leading down from the top of the rappel point.
At the bottom of the rappel, we realized there was no turning back and we began the traverse. The most difficult part of the traverse is unquestionably the descent off the Needle. Once you’re past the largest gendarme beneath Crestone Needle (called the “Black Gendarme” even though it’s not black), the major difficulties are over. Getting off the Needle is a matter of picking the easiest route through a enormously complex series of gullies and cliffs. Ken and I cliffed out a few times and had to retrace our steps. At one point, we were faced with climbing back up a 4th class section and descending an easier way. Instead of doing this, we rappelled another section, which was a lot of fun.
The route is impossible to describe. The best advice to give to others is, when still on top of Crestone Needle, look for very prominent ledges that lead all the way to the south couloir on Crestone Peak. Be warned that it is very tough to get to them if you don’t have a good sense of routefinding and memorize the landmarks. When Ken and I were in one of the last remaining gully-crossings, we saw another pair of climbers rappelling. By the time we emerged out onto the ledges, we saw them again but they were WAY off route on the very steep parts of the north face of the Needle. After a while, we lost them.
Once we were through the major difficulties, we had a great view of the entire route. Many parts of it, however, were obscured by cliffs and gullies.
Although I knew we were on the right route, we did manage to find a few cairns. We tried to build them up and construct new ones as we hiked along the ledges.
Once we got onto the ledges, we moved pretty quickly. Eventually, we ended up in the south couloir on Crestone Peak. This couloir leads up to the Red Saddle. On the opposite side of the Red Saddle, the North Couloir tops out. The North Couloir is the standard route on Crestone Peak. The Red Saddle is also the dividing point between the two summits on Crestone Peak, the main summit being to the left or west. The south couloir on Crestone Peak is considerably looser than that on the Needle but it’s much more stable than the majority of couloirs in Colorado. Parts of the couloir and the entire top is covered in red rock, hence the name.
The scramble to the true summit was very easy and rewarding. Although both peaks were individually easy, the traverse was undoubtedly very difficult but we had succeeded in making it without any real problems. From the top of the summit, we had commanding views of all the nearby peaks. In the valleys to the west, the aspens had begun to change. We signed the register and discovered that we were the only people on the summit this day. After staying on Crestone Peak for maybe an hour, we headed back down the south couloir. Our plan was to go down to Cottonwood Lake and back up over Broken Hand Pass and back to the truck. The North Couloir was reputed to be very loose and, to make matters worse, had snow in it. Besides, I wanted to see Cottonwood Lake. The only trick in downclimbing the south couloir was exiting to the left before the couloir got too cliffy. From here, we had some tricky 3rd class scrambling but we eventually found a trail leading down towards Cottonwood Lake. The terrain around Cottonwood Lake was very pretty…this would be an excellent place to camp.
The hike back over Broken Hand Pass was easy. I still had plenty of energy in me. It felt like I was going backwards; the longer I hiked, the more fresh I felt. Ken didn’t feel the same though…probably because it was his turn to carry the heavy rope! As we were hiking down from Broken Hand Pass we heard voices behind us. It was the other two climbers who had gotten way off route on the traverse. Apparently, they had to climb back up the Needle and back down the standard route or had somehow had to abort and traverse around underneath the backside of the summit. We were well in front of them and didn’t stop to find out (they probably weren’t in the mood for talking about it). It was amazing to think that the whole time we were traversing the two peaks, climbing Crestone Peak, and returning to the truck, they were trying to just get back. They spent a long time up on the Needle, but at least they made it down safely.
This was our third major 14er traverse of the summer and unquestionably the most difficult one. Looking back, the Maroon Bells traverse was relatively easy. It required two rappels but was very straightforward and short. The Mount Wilson-El Diente traverse was the longest. Although it didn’t require a rope, it had plenty of tricky sections. The Crestones required a rappel and had routefinding that was considerably more difficult than the others. That was the main challenge of this traverse…but we were up to it.